Sculpted with lagoons and islets, and flanked by thickly forested emerald hillsides, cascading down to the water, Port Vila is screensaver perfect. Ripe for exploration, many first-time visitors to Vanuatu merely spend a day in the country, arriving and departing by cruise ship. But Port Vila’s knock out setting has much more to offer.
Colonial vestiges add texture, with faded French architecture speckling the city centre and adding zest to its café scene. The French Quarter proper, stretches to the north from central Vila, including Sacre Coeur Cathedral and a clutch of gorgeous colonial-style houses with wooden-louvred windows. But Port Vila is irrepressibly a South Pacific city. Directly across the waterfront, the landmark Iririki Resort has purred back into life. You can easily access Iririki via the ferry which beetles across the waterway, around the clock.
French style cafes
For a ringside seat on Vila’s watery charms, with unobstructed views across to Iririki, take a seat at Le Café du Village, a local institution, which oozes Mediterranean-style charm. This blue and white landmark eatery serves up an expansive and cosmopolitan menu. Favourites include the Thai beef salad, Spanish seafood soup, pork and prawn spring rolls and lobster. It’s an ideal place to relish local seafood and Vanuatu’s famed organic beef. For posh nosh, a Port Vila institution to add to the check-list is the French-style L’Houstalet, which has been serving the same food for half a century. From tender grill steaks and prawn flambe to coconut crab and flying fox, this landmark venue is a perennial performer.
The Kiwi K2’s
A quirky café haunt that has fostered a firm following with the locals, is K2 Café. As the name subtly suggests, the owners are Kiwis, Kelly and Kandy. Located on Port Vila’s back road, this industrial-chic café combines a great outdoor garden area with warehouse-style dining. It’s the go-to for market vegetable salads, fresh fruit juices and green coconuts – plus great coffee!! Be sure to check out the local artworks draping the walls, which are all available for purchase.
Colourful markets of Port Vila
From early morning Monday through to Saturday, Port Vila Market is a colourful, frenetic emporium of fresh produce, handicrafts and trading verve, gracing the waterfront. It’s the go-to destination to bag some rock-bottom priced produce to build your own picnic. Coconuts, pawpaw and gargantuan-sized grapefruit are a steal. Seasonal treats include wild raspberries in September and succulent mangoes go on sale from November. Fresh passionfruit hits its prime between March and May. You can also sample some local eats with the market dining, whereby ladies whip up enticing bites like herb-coated fish with rice, while you wait.
Vanuatu’s unique handicrafts
Best of all, check out Haos Blong HandiKraft, the Mama’s Market, which has become a waterfront staple since 2017. Dedicated to selling only Vanuatu Made products, this fascinating market is a showcase of locally made handicrafts that ensures the preservation of traditional skills. The production of handicrafts is centred on the sharing of stories and skills from one generation to another and the charming vendors will happily share a few insights about how they honed their particular craft, maybe from an aunty or their grandmother. Baskets, home decor, carvings, jewellery and artwork from all six provinces is available for purchase. It’s authenticity plus.
83 Islands Distillery
I’m always up for a craft distillery experience and 83 Islands Distillery is an absolute revelation. Under the command of Pierre-Luc Chabot, the craft rum distillery was established in 2016 and has grown from strength to strength. Also producing gin, vodka and whisky, it is the craft rum, produced from locally-grown sugar cane that is emblematic of the award-winning distillery. They also do a batch of spiced rum with kava. Pierre-Luc took me on a riveting tour through his operation, including sampling some aging rum direct from the oak barrel. What I love about this distillery is that Pierre-Luc has contracted 40 Vanuatu farms to supply him with sugar cane. They are paid the same day their delivery is made, securing these farmers with a stable financial livelihood. I was intrigued to learn that rum matures in barrels a lot faster in the tropics, due to the humidity. The barrels lose about 7% of their contents a year, so thankfully 2-3 years is all it takes to fully mature 83 Islands rum. Curiously, it’s believed that the strain used for sugar production in the Caribbean was imported many centuries ago from Melanesia.
Vanuatu’s famous chocolate
In the heart of town, another hugely inspirational enterprise is Gaston Chocolat. It’s another Frenchman who is the brains behind this runaway success story, Olivier Fernandez, who produces tree-to-bar craft chocolate in Vanuatu from cacao beans that are grown there. Established 6 years ago, like 83 Islands Distillery, Olivier has adopted the same business model, contracting over 150 farmers to grow and harvest cacao beans and they are paid within 24 hours of delivery. The farmers now see cacao as a valuable crop and source of income.
Olivier remarked to me that their packaging doesn’t talk about fair trade or socially responsible behaviours – they simply do it. Their chocolate bar range is mouth-watering. Definitely try the bar with nangai nuts, and the dark chocolate with rum drummed raisins. (Yes, the rum is from 83 islands.) Olivier also produces a stunning bar of kava and chocolate which contains five shells of kava – rather numbing! Gaston is a supplier to a variety of chocolate makers around the world, including the Wellington Chocolate Factory. Gaston (which is Olivier’s grandfather’s name) is another brilliant initiative harnessing a sustainable income for Vanuatu cacao farmers.
The famous Mele Cascades
Soft adventure is in easy reach from Vila. Take a jaunt to the Mele Cascades, about 15 minutes north of town. The NZ$30 entry fee has courted a lot of debate, but aside from the cost, it is a wonderland of waterfalls. A twenty minute walk through lush and fragrant native bush leads you to the most sublime 35 metre high waterfall and gin-clear rock pools. As you ascend, incredibly clear water sparkles in pristine blue pools and upon reaching the top, you are rewarded with beautiful tropical gardens and the amazing falls, plus sizzling views across Mele Bay and Hideaway island. Some stretches of the walking track are steep and slippery, but if you work up a sweat, you’ll be royally rewarded with a liberating dip in the pristine water. Vanuatu is ripe for holiday adventure.
Also close town, Jungle Zipline Vanuatu. Under the command of Aussie couple, Michael and Amanda Thompson, more dizzying views across Efate’s tropical hues, await. The Big Zip Trek enables you to soar through the jungle canopy on a sequence of seven ziplines, totalling 1.3km. You’ll zip across canyons and ravines, mop-topped in lush jungle, while drinking in the lofty views. Then there is the Skybridge, which you can enjoy as part of the zip trek, or as a standalone experience. 120 metres in length and over 60 metres high, it’s the longest suspension bridge in the Southern Hemisphere, with salivating 360 degree views looking down the canyon to Mele Bay and the stunning azure. I adored it. The New Zealand-engineered bridge is highly reminiscent of the Capilano Suspension Bridge, just out of Vancouver. You can free-roam the jungle trails at your own pace to reach the Skybridge, chill out on the edge of the canyon in a fare and even enjoy the seasonal swimming hole at the base of the waterfall.
More outdoorsy frolics? Vanuatu Eco-Tours is the nation’s leading tour operator, delivering real-life, authentic experiences with a superb network of local community partners and superb guides. A great way to encounter Vanuatu’s rainforests and authentic village life is via the water, paddling and swimming the calm waters of Rentapao River. You’ll spend two hours gently kayaking in river, which is wrapped in rainforest and pockets of village life. The locals’ smiles are as wide as a coat-hanger. You’ll enjoy a French-style lunch, topped off with a relaxing dip in the river cascades. It’s a winning excursion.
Stay at Terraces Apartments
Immerse yourself in those celestial views across Port Vila, by locking in a stay The Terraces Apartments. Perched on a cliff-top overlooking the lustre of Erakor lagoon, this ultra- chic apartment hotel is right next door to Mangoes Resort. Stylishly designed to capitalise on the natural light, cool breeze and sensational views, this boutique luxury offering comprises 16 show-stopping apartments, generously proportioned, in one and two bedroom combinations.
Each apartment spans two levels, with generous open plan living and dining areas with soaring ceilings. Your expansive personal space flow outdoors to your private plunge pool and balcony. On-site facilities include a floodlit tennis court, massage facilities, gym and the sparkling waters of the resort pool. Enjoy complimentary tropical breakfast at Mangoes Restaurant. Elevate your Vanuatu getaway with a memorable stay at The Terraces. www.theterracesvanuatu.com
Fly with Air Vanuatu
Air Vanuatu flies direct from Auckland to Port Vila, with three services a week. Just 3 hours away, you’ll enjoy complimentary refreshments, tasty meals and charming inflight service.
May until November sees Vanuatu at its glorious best: the dry season is sun-soaked and low in humidity. Home to a staggering 83 islands, this glorious archipelago is ripe for exploration and relaxation. https://www.airvanuatu.com/